Two years into Russia’s war in Ukraine, how strong is NATO’s unity?

War fatigue is setting in across some Western capitals, but Russia remains the enemy ahead of a critical US election.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg attend a joint news briefing, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine September 28, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (right) and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg are pictured at a joint news briefing in Kyiv, Ukraine on September 28, 2023 [Gleb Garanich/Reuters]

After two years of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, NATO has mostly maintained its unity against Moscow.

The alliance has grown with Finland’s accession and, probably soon, Sweden’s too.

Across Western capitals, there is agreement that a Russian victory in Ukraine could shift the international geopolitical order at the expense of the West’s interests.

Nonetheless, divisions exist.

While the Baltic states advocate for stronger European support for Kyiv, other NATO members such as Hungary and Slovakia have voiced scepticism towards Ukraine.

The outcomes of elections held last year in the Netherlands and Slovakia raised questions about NATO unity in defence of Ukraine.

In November, Geert Wilders’s far-right Party for Freedom won in the Dutch parliamentary election after campaigning in favour of slashing Amsterdam’s military support to Kyiv.

In September, Robert Fico’s Slovak Social Democracy (SMER) party, which has been described as “pro-Kremlin”, secured 22.9 percent of the vote in Slovakia’s parliamentary election, ahead of all others.

But some experts say that the results are unlikely to weaken NATO’s overall resolve.

The elections were “worrisome because these leaders do not accept certain European norms”, John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus, told Al Jazeera.

Yet Feffer does not see the polls representing a “tipping point” when it comes to NATO’s unity.

“Wilders in particular doesn’t have a sufficient electoral majority – unlike [Prime Minister Viktor] Orban in Hungary – to completely ignore past Dutch policy, the positions of mainstream parties, or Dutch public opinion,” he said.

Matthew Bryza, who was the US deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia from 2005 to 2009, also thinks that those elections will not impact Western solidarity with Kyiv.

Within the European Union, Hungary was recently alone in attempting to block additional military and economic assistance from Brussels to Ukraine to the tune of 50 billion euros ($54bn), but the bloc “outmaneuvered” Orban, explained Bryza.

“The institution of the EU and the institution of NATO are stronger than one or even a couple of leaders with those views,” he said.

Furthermore, despite Slovakia’s new government coming to power with a critical perspective on Ukraine, Bratislava has not since moved to undermine Western unity against Moscow.

Additionally, as Christoph Schwarz, a research fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES), told Al Jazeera, the outcome of Poland’s recent elections has “reinvigorated the Weimar triangle between Berlin, Paris, and Warsaw and strengthened [NATO] overall.”

Western war fatigue

Nonetheless, as the conflict continues, war fatigue is setting in across some parts of the Western world.

“The best medicine against war fatigue in the support of Ukraine would be substantial gains and wins by Ukraine, which would require much more support by the West in terms of military aid,” said Schwarz.

“However, the longer such gains and wins for Ukraine fail to materialise, the more likely it will become that nationalist-isolationist factions will increase their influence and even win upcoming elections, thereby exacerbating the lack of Western military support for Ukraine.”

Russia’s alleged ability to conduct disinformation campaigns that disseminate anti-Western narratives is also a factor.

“The concept of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ — the notion that policy support for Ukraine by Western democracies is bound to diminish over time — is a defeatist and self-fulfilling prophecy that has been exacerbated by the lack of consistent and high-profile direct-to-camera statements by leaders of global democracies explaining to their electorates the damage that not supporting Kyiv to defeat the Russian military in Ukraine would have on global security,” Benjamin L Schmitt, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, told Al Jazeera.

Uncertainty in the US

Beyond training, NATO’s support for Ukraine is more political, rather than practical. While political support matters, what is most practically important is support from individual NATO members.

It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which this year’s United States presidential election will impact Ukraine’s future.

“When it comes to NATO’s unity in support of Ukraine and against Russia’s violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity, on the surface at least it would appear to be the case that everything is at stake in terms of the Biden versus Trump presidential race this November,” said Bryza.

Silja Bara R Omarsdottir, a professor of international affairs at the University of Iceland, told Al Jazeera that she believes it is “the unity itself that is at stake”.

“Trump’s recent remarks on not wanting to defend countries [in NATO] that don’t meet funding requirements is very aggressive,” she said, “and in the past of course we’ve heard him indicate that it is the [NATO members] closest to Russia that he considers as somehow less valued members of the alliance – despite them being the ones that actually meet the two percent goal.”

There is a huge difference between how US President Joe Biden and former leader Donald Trump view Ukraine and NATO.

Biden strongly believes in the Western alliance, while Trump views NATO in transactional terms.

“Trump does not openly support Russia, but rather pushes an isolationist line that the US doesn’t have a dog in the fight. That has some resonance in the US electorate, on both the left and the right,” said Feffer.

“At stake, of course, is the future of the transatlantic alliance, which Biden upholds and Trump disdains. Trump has his own shadow transatlantic alliance to promote, with his far-right friends in Hungary, the Netherlands, and Italy.

“If Trump wins – and the EU falls into the hands of the far right after the next European parliament elections – these cornerstones of US foreign policy and the international community more generally will look suddenly very fragile indeed,” Feffer concluded.

If Washington stops supporting Kyiv financially and militarily, European states will not be able to make up the difference because “they simply don’t have the required military, intelligence, and armament capabilities”, explained Wolfgang Pusztai, a senior adviser at AIES.

“The consequence would be that Ukraine would need to seek a ceasefire under unfavourable conditions – or continue fighting and lose the war. Both would make [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and Russia the glorious winner,” said Pusztai.

“This would have far-reaching negative geostrategic consequences for the US and its allies, which is certainly not in their interests.”

Source: Al Jazeera